Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. The Crescent City and the Saints franchise, which was typically destroyed by other NFL teams, were forced to rebuild. And that's exactly what they did.
On December 31, 2005, a single play would change the course of two franchises. When Drew Brees, the San Diego Chargers' QB, injured his shoulder against the Denver Broncos, the long suffering Saints franchise was in the midst of a three-win season.
After New Orleans lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-13 the next day, the Saints completed their pitiful masterpiece and were rewarded for their poor play with the second pick in the NFL draft.
In 2004, the Chargers acquired Phillip Rivers, quarterback from N.C. State, from the New York Giants. The franchise believed that Rivers, not Brees, was the quarterback of the future.
However, the former Purdue standout played well from 2004-2005, making the Pro Bowl both years (once as an alternate). The injury Brees sustained in the final regular season game forced them to make a tough decision.
San Diego decided not to pay Brees the money he desired and handed over the reigns to Rivers.
After the Chargers declined to re-sign the QB, he began to talk with other teams. The shoulder injury scared away most people and only two teams showed major interest—the Saints and the Dolphins.
Although Brees wanted to sign with the Miami Dolphins, his shoulder surgery was deemed too risky by their medical staff. Nick Saban and the Dolphins decided to pass on Brees and instead signed Dante Culpepper as their starting quarterback.
Shortly after the Dolphins pulled out, Brees inked a six-year, $60 million contract with the New Orleans Saints. The black and gold seemed to be gambling on a player coming off serious surgery.
It would have been tough for Brees to disappoint the black and gold fanbase anymore than QB Aaron Brooks had in his recent tenure. As long as the former Charger QB did not throw the football backwards, everybody would be happy.
Once the Saints locked up their starting QB, the organization focused on the draft. With the second pick, they selected Reggie Bush, the Heisman trophy winner from USC.
Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief and Marques Colston were also selected in that 2006 draft. Hope replaced complacency in New Orleans and the black and gold faithful showed their approval by selling out the season for the first time in franchise history.
The Saints achieved much in the 2006 season, but the franchises’ dream of winning the city's first world championship came to an end in Chicago where the Bears defeated the Saints 39-14 in the NFC Championship game.
New Orleans made it to their first NFC Championship game behind their Brees-led high-powered offense. But it was not until the next season that they found their defensive leader.
In three full seasons with the New York Jets, Jonathan Vilma averaged 130 tackles a season, leading the league in 2005 with 169. Seven weeks into the 2007 campaign, he suffered a knee injury that left him sidelined for the remainder of the year.
During the offseason, the Jets traded Vilma to the Saints for a fourth-round pick and a conditional third-round pick in the 2009 draft.
Another NFL team decided a proven player is a risk because of injury—déjà vu for the Saints. Two years after that trade, they found themselves playing in the Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts.
Vilma matched wits with Peyton Manning, the four-time league MVP, sometimes changing the defensive call multiple times before the snap. He won the battle against Manning and the Saints came out victorious, defeating the Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV.
Yes, other people besides Drew Brees, Reggie Bush and Jonathan Vilma were essential to the Saints' win in Miami. But those three, especially Brees and Vilma, turned in performances that will not be forgotten any time soon.
In just four years, the Saints went from lovable losers to perennial contenders. Two proven but wounded winners, Brees and Vilma, redeemed an organization mired in mediocrity for much of its history.